Stuff I like …

The History of Us by Philip Leslie is a good read with the interweaved lifetimes stories of the successful actor, a struggling artist and the girl who influenced their lives so completely yet never made it. It is easy to sympathise with Jim unable to say what he feels, embarrassed and tongue tied with a girl he loves who thinks he is her best friend. They live as friends but behind that increasing charade their lives get messier and that is where the randy artist comes in struggling with his own demons. It is a series of increasingly constricting knots for everyone and it ends in disaster. I liked the characters and although it takes a few sleights of hand to get to the end I think it sort of works. There’s lots of adolescent growing up in Gorleston as well, something I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, but it has the ring of authenticity. Later in everyone’s lives it gets more complicated to sustain the plot but it carried me through. A different and enjoyable read.

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is a book I enjoyed, if that is the right word. It contains some tough scenes. However, it is well written and maintains the pace of the story as it unfolds. The characterisation is good, the locations are convincing and I like the style. If you wanted to be picky you could complain about the coincidences which enable the narrator to, firstly, survive and, secondly, work out what to do next along the way, but that is normal for the genre.

Sadie Jones doesn’t shy away from bleak topics and in Small Wars she has definitely found one. Poor Hal trapped by upbringing and then his military commission stifling him until he inevitably cracks. Neat writing though as he is both a coward and a hero and his wife, half victim half participant in his downfall. If only people could speak to one another truthfully! They rarely can in Sadie Jones’s worlds. The last spasms of British colonialism are well explored, Cyprus evoked in heat and cold, and the reader can feel the predicaments this all creates.

The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is clever, witty and has a point – no wonder it got good reviews. It is a clever book, cleverer than Forrest Gump to which it is related. What I did like was Allan’s belief that if you sat two world leaders down for the night with a bottle or two of Russian Standard they would resolve their differences or at least find some consensus by morning. I think that might be true!

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is an inventive read and fun to boot. I was introduced to this book by my son-in-law and I was, of course, a bit suspicious as I haven’t heard much about it on Radio 4 or in the Guardian or seen the author on some arty farty book programme on television. I expect I missed him at the Hay Literary Festival as well. He would obviously do a lot better if he could develop a career in journalism and the media or star in a TV programme about a fat female vicar before trying to write a book. He could charge twice as much for the Kindle version as well! Anyway, having got that off my chest, this is an extremely funny and inventive book. It is also, dare I say it, literary in the nicest sense and I enjoyed it immensely. I know that lots of other people will have done the same but many others will simply have, like me, missed it along the way so thanks Angus, and when snobby book publishers and the papers and the media stop publishing and glorifying one another’s books in the incestuous way that they do now I won’t be sorry to see them all replaced by Amazon star ratings and the wisdom of the crowd.

Like the food at the meal you can make your own decisions about The Dinner by Herman Koch. I think it is an excellent read and very enjoyable in its own way but as to whether there is a significant moral point behind it I’m not so sure. The question of how far you would go as middle-class parents to protect your child is an interesting one but the link to the premiership of the Netherlands is more tenuous. Although there are some big issues in the book, it is also extremely funny both about restaurants and about the Dutch. It is probably unfair to say that the book cops out about the narrator’s illness. I enjoyed his evident unreliability! All in all a great read that will make you think if you have teenage kids.

I enjoyed Skios by Michael Frayn in a light chuckle sort of way. It is so obviously Michael Frayn meets David Lodge that you just have to take it as it comes. I thought the ending was a little bit too absurd as I tend to think that a good farce ought to wrap up the loose bits without resorting to external factors and dei ex machinae.

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson is an unusual book, nicely written and atmospheric as well. It is sort of historic but not really so and it has none of the leaden obviousness which you get with the Hilary Mantel type of stuff (although it is heretical to say that these days). The main character is fascinating as is his relationship with the levers of power and a mysterious girl. The other thing is that Rupert Thomson writes really well – descriptions that you stop and re-read because they are so good or out of the ordinary. And, finally, there is a slippery metaphorical waxiness which links the style and the story but you’ll have to read it to get that.

I found All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr terribly sad, cruel and almost unreadable in parts. The awful lives of the key characters and the lack of kindness may be authentic but that makes for a hard read. The blindness of the little girl, the hopeless fate of the boy weren’t redeemed for me by the various endings or uplifted. Well written but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want to be depressed. Life under German occupation has been better described I think as has the war from the German side. There again, maybe I’m just soft and hate books with cruelty to children as their core theme. It is a good book though!

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was a contender for the Booker in 2016 and I liked it. Eileen’s story is a powerful evocation of life on the wrong side of the tracks. Ottessa Moshfegh knows how to build an atmosphere and the description is sharp and cold like the weather. We spend most of the book building the story to make the ending plausible and not over dramatic. All of the characters are grotesque including Eileen but the landscape they inhabit makes them real and small town America rarely looked so sordid. Maybe the ending is a bit calculated but overall this is a compulsive read and maintains its pace – clever when for much of it nothing much happens!

Another book about life after the crash is The Shelf Life of Happiness by David Machado.  I got to like this book more and more as it went on. One man’s battle to survive the Portuguese recession and save his family from falling apart involving any number of twists and turns in his domestic life, a trip to Switzerland and much more. It’s a book about the meaning of happiness and contentment too and where you find it without ever being sentimental. Me, I think I’m an 8.0 today but if you read the book don’t forget to post your score!

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